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Joss WhedonJoss Whedon - Revenge of the nerd - Smh.com.au Interview
By Bernard Zuel
Friday 2 September 2005, by Webmaster
Fan power helped Joss Whedon bring an axed TV show back to life as a movie.
Joss Whedon makes movies and television for people just like him. People for whom "culture" can encompass Shakespeare and comic books, John Ford and Stephen Sondheim, science fiction and teen melodramas. People who are obsessive but don’t mind laughing at themselves too; who build their families out of friendships rather than obligations; and, well, people who like seeing small women kick butt, leaving a trail of up-ended cliches behind them.
Those people came to see the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, about a small group of outsiders banding together to fight demons, vampires and ratty school principals, was terrain far richer and funnier than its 90210-meets-Hammer Horror surface. They understood that the "petty" worries of teenagers - fitting in and feeling left out; balancing duty and pleasure; understanding sexuality and power - resonated in our lives long after the hormones settled.
As one Whedon fan in Sydney, Leigh Drew, puts it: "For me [Buffy] was about your teenage years but it was again the whole experience, the same situations you get into as an adult. Especially for the geeks of the world. It was about being separate but being triumphant in your separateness."
The fans recognised an older tale in the quest for redemption and purpose in the Buffy spin-off Angel (about outsiders banding together to fight demons, vampires and nasty lawyers), which was both noir and witty. And some of them saw Whedon’s "script doctor" hand in work as disparate as the feature films Toy Story (outsiders banding together to rescue a friend) and Speed (outsiders banding together to stop Dennis Hopper overacting).
It was this audience - never huge but passionate, dedicated and married to the web - that caught on to the Whedon-conceived 2002 series Firefly (about, you guessed it, a small group banding together, 500 years in the future, to fight murderous lunatics, rusted airlocks and bad government). Soon they were flooding the internet with their thoughts on its mix of science fiction and the American western. One board, or web meeting place, drew more than 50,000 contributors.
[If you’re thinking what a bunch of pop-culture sad sacks, consider US academic Henry Jenkins’s observation in his book Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture: "Would these same practices - close attention, careful rereading, intense discussion - be read as extreme if they were applied to Shakespeare instead of Star Trek, Italian opera instead of Japanese animation, or Balzac instead of Beauty and the Beast?"]
When Firefly was axed after 10 episodes by a flummoxed Fox Network, which had wanted another The X Files and instead got The Searchers-meets-Solaris-with jokes, these fans bought the DVD in such quantities that Universal Pictures decided 250,000 people can’t be wrong and funded Whedon to make the upcoming Firefly movie, Serenity.
His directorial debut in a feature film is typical Whedon, but more. Packed with droll lines and cultural references, and featuring both anachronistic gunplay and futuristic spaceships, it turns on several philosophical notions.
"It’s about how much freedom you can take away from somebody before they either fold or fight," Whedon says. "It’s about the right to be wrong and the nature of human beings, that they need the freedom to be wrong. That they cannot be made to be better or perfect."
The campaign behind Serenity is so fan-driven that the film’s marketing has been built on the power of net groups such as Browncoats Downunder, the Australian arm of the Whedon fan base.
Jon Anderson, the Australian marketing manager for United International Pictures, says the fans, "an incredibly savvy group: smart, articulate and passionate", have been integral to his campaign, from marketing advice to leaflet drops "and convincing non-fans to attend our early screenings or at least having them watch the original TV series [on DVD] to understand what the fuss is all about".
This move from failed TV show to feature film is rare. Star Trek spawned a series of movies after its TV run was cut short, but those movies came a decade later, after the TV show had built an audience and momentum. Here, a far-flung bunch of people persuaded the suits to take seriously a show that barely registered on public consciousness. And they proved true one theme of all Whedon’s work: that we find our families.
"I’m a believer in that," Whedon says. "I am a great believer in found families and I’m not a great believer in blood. Although I love my family, even the ones I grew up with, to me I’ve always felt that the people who treated you with respect and included you in their lives were your family and the people who were related to you by blood might happen to be those people but that correlation was a lot less [strong] than society believes it is."
For Whedon, 41, who grew up in California but finished his high schooling at Winchester, a private boys’ college in England, it’s a personal, if not always seriously put, argument.
"Yeah, I’ve always been an outsider, even in any group I was part of. I’ve always felt like the outside part: the ’Y’ in the vowels; the Young in Crosby, Stills and Nash. I just never felt like a part of some place until it was something I built myself. That sense of alienation brings with it feelings of both inferiority and superiority that every nerd nurtures [so] I have somewhat antisocial tendencies and I don’t understand humans very well."
And yet you walk amongst us.
"Right now I limp amongst you. Once I have my knee worked on I’ll walk amongst you again," he says drily. "It actually goes back to when I was 11 years old and everybody was hanging out at the beginning of sixth grade and I suddenly had this weird horrible feeling: what are we doing? We’re just being here; this is meaningless. From that day on I was unable to just be a part of a social gathering that wasn’t towards some purpose and I have never since that day felt at ease in a group of people or like I was a complete part of it."
That’s an appallingly early age to have an existential crisis.
"Yes, it was. I think I would have liked to have it after puberty. But in some sense I think that [feeling an outsider] is essential for a writer and I’m never happier than when I’m writing."
In that sense Whedon is like his father, who wrote for shows such as The Golden Girls and Benson, and his grandfather, who wrote for The Dick Van Dyke Show and Leave it to Beaver. But the influence of his mother, a teacher who brought him up after his parents’ marriage broke up, may be the strongest factor. There’s no need of Freudian analysis to see that Whedon’s career is centred (his next project is a new Wonder Woman film) on the creation of strong young women with the will and the ability to bust a few conventions. And joke about it.
Buffy, the quintessential Whedon figure, fought mightily in each of her seven seasons. However, she also used another Whedon weapon - language - as University of Sydney PhD student Gwyn Symonds explained in a paper titled Solving Problems with Sharp Objects: Female Empowerment, Sex and Violence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
"The banter portion of the fight is acknowledged by both villains and [Buffy’s friends] as a ritualistic and essential part of the fight scenario," Symonds wrote. "Lame repartee can signal inevitable defeat as much as a poorly placed kick or punch. Repartee, whether Buffy’s or from the core group, is a vehicle for the female empowerment message."
Serenity has a complex but inspiring male lead character, but the pivotal figure is a young, seemingly fragile woman called River, with far from ordinary talents. She’s another Whedon woman: young and small and able to beat the hell out of you.
"A lot of it is to do with [the fact] I have a lot of identification with females," Whedon says. "I had a very strong mother. I was very small and wanted to beat the hell out of a bunch of people and never actually did because they were much larger - I’m small but I’m smart. And there’s a lot of it that I don’t honestly understand - my shrink and I will get back to you in about six months - I just know that on an intellectual level I had always wanted to see a female hero who was a real hero, not a heroine, not a damsel, not a girl with a pointless chop-socky sequence, but a hero. And I’d seen it a couple of times, mostly in the work of James Cameron, but I hadn’t seen it enough and on an intellectual and political level thought that it was necessary."
To paraphrase Steve Martin, that’s your special purpose.
"Yes, it is, if I have one that’s it because I actually know a few girls who feel like that now instead of feeling [weak and insignificant] and that’s the point."
Perhaps that’s why Buffy, in particular, worked: it took all the issues of being a teenage girl seriously but not solemnly. "I had always felt that if you took teenagers seriously you would not miss because no one takes themselves more seriously. No time in your life is more charged, more romantic, more depressive or more interesting than your adolescence."
Nothing is more life and death than being a teenager and there was plenty of it in Buffy. "Exactly, and that was the metaphor I was working with: that going to the dance and saving the world really did have the emotional resonance. That’s not something that anyone gets over, which is why Buffy watchers were not just teenagers, because people carry that experience all their lives."
Buffy watchers, and Whedon fans generally, are not just casual listeners. At the screening of Serenity I attended, the man a couple of seats up from me was in his late 30s and wearing a Sunnydale High (Buffy’s fictional school) T-shirt and I thought: "Nerd." And then: "We are one."
"Exactly. I don’t think it’s limited to them but when you get down to the diehards you get some serious nerdism and that’s something I’ve worn proudly my whole life," Whedon chuckles. "I went to my first comic convention when I was 10 and got Stan Lee’s autograph, I played with superhero dolls and I don’t care, I love it, I saw Star Wars 10 times, I’m that guy."
WHEDON’S WAY WITH WORDS
It’s the words, stupid. Like fans of Monty Python, Little Britain or The Fast Show, Joss Whedon fans will always quote lines from favourite episodes or characters, or naturally fall into the rhythm of his dialogue. Take the following exchange between two ardent Whedon fans in Sydney, Miriam Mulcahy and Leigh Drew, about their interest in Serenity.
Drew: "I’ve been a hard-core atheist all my life and I have friends who refer to it as being my religion, my cult."
Mulcahy: "It’s good to believe in something."
Drew: "You could say it’s looking at ..."
Mulcahy: "... the human condition."
Drew: "Ooh, don’t mention the human condition ..."
Mulcahy: "... it’s all about the explosions."
Drew: "See, in no way do we quote Joss all the time, at all."
For Whedon, who dived into Shakespeare as a boy the way others at his English private school dived into Viz magazine, the language comes first.
"In the case of both Buffy and Firefly, it was almost a case of devising a language," Whedon says. "In Buffy, while writing the movie I actually was teaching part-time in a high school and I would listen to the kids talk and everything they said was from the movie Heathers and I thought, well, clearly I can’t just use teen-speak because by the time I get this thing filmed it will no longer be teen-speak - teens will become angry and chase me down the street with torches.
"I basically said the way to do this is you create slang so I started to play with the language and that became one of the staples of the show. It’s not like we had cute catchphrases. The whole point was always to approach a sentence laterally, to create a fluid basis for a slang that was based on popular culture and love of language and general silliness.
"With Firefly, it’s set in the future and that was a more deliberate attempt at creating a language. That was the most fun I’ve ever had because it was like writing poetry: everybody just spoke so swimmingly. A lot of it is western but it’s also Irish, turn-of-the-century Pennsylvania Dutch, a lot of Elizabethan, some John Wayne."
The other element of the language in Firefly and Serenity, set 500 years in the future, long after the Western and Eastern powers have formed an alliance, is the casual use of Chinese phrases (which are never translated).
"It was really fun," Whedon says. "Though I did discover that the Chinese language can say a lot with very few syllables, which was a nightmare for me as I had to keep writing longer and longer curses so my actors would say something which didn’t sound like ’Nah.’ "